On the back foot

by Joseph Romanos / 08 October, 2005
New Zealand tennis is struggling.

These are not happy times for New Zealand tennis. The country's top coach, former Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewis, is moving to the United States in December. The national association is embroiled in a public slanging match with another former great, Onny Parun. And the New Zealand men's team remains consigned to the bottom ranks of the Davis Cup after being humbled by South Korea.

There hasn't been much said publicly about Lewis's departure. His wife, Cindy, is a Californian and it might be thought he is moving for her and their three children. But after speaking to him, my impression is that he has been worn down during the time that he and his brother Mark have been coaching in Auckland. There have been fallings-out with national administrators and with other coaches, and a lot of back-of-the-hand derogatory comments about him.

Lewis did good work while serving on the New Zealand Tennis board, trying to drag the sport into the modern era. A while back, Davis Cup captain Bruce Derlin said that Lewis was responsible for the mess New Zealand tennis was in. Such ludicrous comments would make most people favourably regard a move offshore.

New Zealand has three genuinely promising players. They are Marina Erakovich, a 17-year-old with a world ranking of 205, and two youngsters, Sacha Jones and Sean Berman. It's no coincidence that all three are coached by the Lewis brothers.

Yet there has not exactly been widespread disappointment expressed by our national administrators about Chris Lewis's imminent departure. Oh well. As Jimmy Connors said when asked when he was going to retire, "I don't know, but you'll miss me when I'm gone."

Parun, after having based himself in London for 20 years, has been back in Wellington for a while, trying to contribute to New Zealand tennis in his own way, through coaching and offering to manage junior teams. There has been disharmony between Parun and the national association for some time, and things bubbled to the surface recently when Parun took exception to being made the subject of a police check after applying to manage a junior team. He felt insulted.

Eccentric is too strong a word to describe Parun, but he is unique. He is full of good intentions and with his record as a player and his impeccable work ethic, I'd have thought the national association would be falling over itself to involve him, rather than taking shots at him in the national newspapers.

The Davis Cup result, a flattering 3-2 loss to South Korea at Albany, consigns New Zealand to another year in the Asia-Pacific Group 2 division. In the 1980s, New Zealand, led by Lewis and Russell Simpson (with help from Parun), reached the World Group semi-final, where they lost 3-2 to France.

Now we can't beat South Korea even at home. One year, Lewis and Simpson beat them in the snow in Seoul. Lewis wore two tracksuits throughout his opening match. The New Zealanders regarded the tie as an unavoidable and unenjoyable chore. Now we view trying to beat Korea as like trying to climb Mt Everest.

At Albany, the Koreans won their three matches in straight sets. They dropped one opening-day singles after New Zealand No 1 Mark Nielsen's second-string Korean opponent injured himself when leading by two sets. The fifth rubber, after the tie was decided, went to New Zealand when the Koreans blooded a youngster.

The tie summed up New Zealand tennis: no live television coverage, minimal reporting in the written media, disappointing crowds, sub-standard tennis. How did things ever get so bad?

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